My relationship with food as a first-generation mom

black frying pan with chapati

This essay is part of Motherwell’s new Parenting and Food column.

By Lakshmi Lyer
@lakshgiri

I stand by the kitchen island, three bulging school bags lined up next to each other. I am methodical. I go for the lunchboxes first. Most days, two out of three come back empty. There are rare days when I find food in all of them. Then, there are the days when the lunch explodes and I have to deal with a soggy mess.

I steel my nerves; I physically prepare myself each day before I open each box. My shoulders slump when the boxes are heavy, the food left over, my body relaxes when it is what I expect and they are empty. I have tried to make sense of my outsized relationship with food and being a mother. I am still searching for answers. 

When my twins were little, I would spend each evening feeding them what was left of their lunch before preparing a full dinner. I would then feed them until sometimes they would fall asleep mid-feed. The guilt would consume me, how much they ate a barometer of my success as a mother.

I’d like to think I have changed with the years. I am much more cognizant now of how much their little tummies can handle. But that does not stop me from trying to sneak in one extra helping of vegetable or rice each night.

My youngest is picky. Each morning she comes downstairs, sleep still lingering in her eyes. Her first question, “What’s for lunch?” Depending on my answer, her eyes would light up or she would throw herself against the tan, worn couch in the living room. If my answer pleases her, she follows up with, “What’s for breakfast?”

Food is the cornerstone of our existence as a family. I talk with my mom multiple times a day. “Saaptacha?” she asks. It is routine, this asking in Tamil if I have had my meal. It is akin to saying “I love you” or “How are you?” Some days, when I have not talked to her as much as normal, she texts me late at night: “What was for dinner?”

My sister and I, when we get together once every year, talk about our mom’s obsession with food. Lately we realize we are have become her. No matter where the conversation starts, it meanders to what we feed our respective daughters. There is pride in my voice when I tell my sister how wide my children’s palate is. She beams with pride when she speaks of the healthful ingredients in her daughter’s smoothie or the newest recipe she tried that was a hit with her daughter.

We laugh about it too, this preoccupation with food and its often unhealthy relationship with the kind of mothers we are. The way it makes us obsessed with food, its preparation and its consumption. 

I think back to my childhood. All my pleasant memories have to do with what was on the menu that day. I started helping my mother in the kitchen actively when I was about twelve. I would use the aruvamanai, the old-fashioned kitchen blade, attached to a wood wooden base so ancient I can’t tell you what color it was. I would squat on the kitchen floor, my one foot anchoring the blade, and lean forward so my weight would help scrape the coconut flesh into soft white heaps. The next year, Mom taught me to make chutney, adding fresh green chillies, a handful of pottu kadalai, just the right amount of salt to grind into a coarse side for the crispy dosais she would make for dinner. 

I would read about moms and daughters bonding over shopping and movies, knowing my bond with my mom would always be the memories of the dim kitchen and the smells I associate with love. 

My daughters are ten and five. They watch as I cook. Lately, I have been letting them help me pound the chappathi dough, their tiny hands working the gluten after I’ve had a go at it. They help their dad chop vegetables, precisely, all pieces cubed, even. On rare weekends, I get to sit back and watch all of them prepare and make rava dosai. The effort to get those crispy crepes on the plate takes roughly two hours. The children are maddeningly patient as they crowd around their father. One child reads off the recipe. One measures the ingredients, while the youngest adds it all into a deep vessel and stirs solemnly. They set the timer for it to soak, to absorb the pungency of the ginger and the tartness of the curds.

These days when my children throw a tantrum, I counter with “would you like a banana?” or “are you hungry?”

Food, it turns out, is medicine. It is salve for broken hearts, mean girls at school, hard to crack math problems and of course, hunger.

On the days I return from work sullen, upset over things outside my control, I talk to my own mom. Her first question, as always is “Saptiya?” Have you eaten? 

I eat to oblige her. I eat because it sates me. I eat because I know when I am done eating, my worries have lessened. 

Lakshmi Iyer is a debut children’s author (Why is my hair curly? by Westland Books) and mother to three daughters. She does business analysis by day and works on her next novel at night. Her favorite social media haunt is twitter.com/lakshgiri.

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